Books: Between tribalism and universalism

An attempt to quantify the views of US Jews leaves more questions than answers.

Thousands of Jewish American high-school students attend a rally in Manhattan in 2002 calling for an end to terrorism (photo credit: REUTERS)
Thousands of Jewish American high-school students attend a rally in Manhattan in 2002 calling for an end to terrorism
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 In 1915, Louis Brandeis, the jurist and progressive activist, declared: “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent.”
Brandeis’s speech to the Conference of the Eastern Council of Reform Rabbis could have been written 100 years later – and given at an AIPAC conference today.
In The Star and the Stripes, Michael N. Barnett, a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University, looks at the foreign policy of American Jews. He examines the “attempt by Jewish individuals and institutions to mobilize and represent the Jewish community for the purpose of protecting Jewish interests and advancing a vision of global justice inspired by Jewish political and religious thought.”
More specifically, he wants to see how American Jews have addressed issues relating to threats to Jews abroad. His starting point is a revelation that the Jewish community has come to be less essentialist and embrace humanitarianism and non-sectarian issues, such as aiding Darfur.
“Unfortunately, most Jewish communities have never felt secure enough to look beyond their own needs to consider what contributions they might make to human progress and the end of suffering,” Barnett argues.
Barnett makes a lot of generalizations from the start. He asserts that Jewish Americans supporting Israel have distanced themselves for support for human rights because “human rights no longer served American Jewish interests,” since it was seen as having been hijacked by the United Nations and “become shamelessly politicized.”
He acknowledges, however, that generalizing about this diverse community is not easy. It is both tribal and cosmopolitan, universalist and particularist. In some cases, large Jewish NGOs from the US have participated in peace conferences, such as in 1919 in Paris, and during consultations towards the creation of the UN in 1945. On the other hand, there are some 17,500 Jewish organizations in the US, and they don’t all see eye to eye.
Large organizations, such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, have only 50 members, according to Barnett. Organizations such as J Street increasingly challenge the “establishment” organizations, such as AIPAC.
The book plods along on some wellknown ground about how Jews came to America and how their numbers burgeoned in the 19th century. He also looks at specific leaders, including Brandeis – who seems to have radically altered his view on the role of Jewishness among Jewish Americans. Once opposed to “hyphenated Americans,” the US Supreme Court justice later not only became a major Zionist, but asserted that being Zionists would make Jews “better Americans.”
There is a feeling in the first chapters that the author is interested primarily in rushing through the material to get closer to the present day. There is little discussion of the role of American Jewish organizations during the Holocaust era. There is little to no discussion of the role of Jews in radical movements of the early 20th century, particularly communism. Where is the discussion of Emma Goldman or labor leaders? What long-term influence might Yiddish socialists have had on American Jewish political choices? Fast-forward to the 1950s, when the Rosenbergs are arrested for giving secrets to the Soviets.
“It was not only the Cold War that was on display or whether Jews could be trusted, but also the different visions American Jews had for themselves,” he wrote.
This description brushes over the discussion on how Jews ended up on both the American right and the radical left.
The discussion on how the American Jewish Committee chose to support an international Bill of Rights as a substitute for a concept of minority rights is fascinating, if limited.
“The idea was to universalize and internationalize the various kinds of principles embodied in this [American] revolutionary document” – using a blend of dialogue about protecting Jewish rights, to extend individual rights to all mankind.
Here we see a unique choice to advance the rights of minorities throughout the world because of a feeling that their fate was bound with Jews.
In contrast to this support for minorities, Barnett argues that the Six Day War became a turning point. American Jews were traumatized by threats to the Jewish state, reliving a sense of the Holocaust, according to the author. According to this narrative, the war in which Israel conquered swaths of land was also a turning point in American Jewish support for human rights.
Aryeh Neier, founder of Human Rights Watch, claimed: “I really see Jewish organizations as having withdrawn from international human rights.”
There are far too many generalizations in this book for any of them to be taken seriously without more evidence.
“After 1967 and the Six Day War, American Jews did something quite out of character: they became Jewish nationalists of the tribal variety,” asserts the opening to Chapter 6.
“American Jews continue to see themselves as part of the world,” supposes the author, and are showing a “renewed religiosity.”
Maybe so, but by what measure, according to what survey? A lot of the text reads like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as the text tells us again and again that “American Jewish organizations have retreated from the human rights movement,” it must be true.
But have organizations like the JDC really retreated? Were these organizations speaking out more on human rights in 1920 or 1950 than in 1985 and 2005? There seems to have been little attempt to quantify, if this is accurate.
Even basic information is false and based on serious reaches. Claiming that Israelis don’t care about the concept of tikkun olam, Barnett argues that support in Israel for Darfur included only one “lone example and was easily clouded by Israel’s rough treatment of its African refugees.”
When I studied at the Hebrew University in 2004 there was a bench manned by left-leaning Israelis raising awareness about Darfur. African migrants have received support from progressives in Israel, but the author prefers a simplistic generation about a nationalist Israeli society that is not nuanced. This lack of nuance and deeper discussion based on surveys and evidence runs throughout the book.
At a time when issues of foreign policy are deeply affecting American Jews during the presidential campaign with voices from the far left to right, an exploration of this topic is in high demand.
Unfortunately, much is lacking from this narrative, which leaves more questions than it answers.